WASHINGTON — Vaughn Ward has an opponent — two, if you count Idaho's May 25 primary and the Nov. 2 general election.
But in Ward's bid to take the congressional seat that Democrat Walt Minnick wrested from a Republican less than two years ago, he aims to give Idaho voters a third opponent: Washington, D.C., itself.
Ward, 40, hopes to cast his race as an epic battle, an opportunity for Idaho voters to play a part in ousting Democrats from the leadership of the House of Representatives. As Congress' approval ratings have lagged amid concerns over the economy and progress on health care, Republicans have started to consider the possibility that they might retake control of the House.
And they see Minnick's district, which Sen. John McCain carried with 62 percent of the vote in the 2008 presidential election, as low-hanging fruit ripe for the picking.
"I think the fact that Idaho is a battleground state will let Idahoans feel some pride in that, and also they'll feel the burden," Ward said last week during an interview in Washington at the headquarters of the National Republican Campaign Committee.
"We can help change the future of this nation," Ward said. "That's how important some of the seats are coming down to, is that we're going to help decide the direction that our nation goes — in Idaho."
Minnick's campaign spokesman, John Foster, said that it's a mistake to see the race as about anything other than Idaho's interests.
"He might think it's important for national Republicans," Foster said, "but we think it's important for Idaho."
Ward was in Washington last week along with nine other Republicans singled out by GOP leaders as promising challengers in toss-up districts they believe they can take back from Democrats. Earlier in February, he had been chosen for the NRCC's "Young Guns" program, which got its start during the 2008 election cycle.
Ward, an Iraq war veteran and former CIA officer, last worked full time on McCain's presidential campaign in Nevada. He hasn't been formally endorsed by the NRCC, but he has met a number of the campaign committee's goals, including fundraising, grassroots organization and communications. Their support helps draw campaign donations from individuals and political action committees interested in backing GOP challengers.
"These are the top 10 races in the nation they think are gettable," Ward said. "If there's going to be a pendulum shift, these 10 seats mark that."
Ward has been campaigning for the past 11 months, but for him to be a part of a pendulum shift — if it happens — he'll have to win a primary against state Rep. Raul Labrador.
"Apparently he thinks just because he got endorsements from the Washington establishment, that that actually matters to the people of Idaho," said Labrador, who counters that while his opponent has devoted himself to a full-time campaign, he's been serving in the state legislature and running a business.
Labrador also points out that so-called establishment Republicans have always had a tough time winning a seat that has often gone to more conservative office-seekers, such as former Rep. Helen Chenoweth. And he shrugs off the NRCC's interest in his opponent.
"The Republican Party brought us the Obama administration because they couldn't get their act together in Washington," he said.
So far, though, Ward has a major fundraising advantage over Labrador: he had raised about $351,000 through December, compared to just $83,000 for Labrador. Minnick has both beat, however. He had raised about $1,164,000 through December.
Ward, who spent much of the interview criticizing Minnick, doesn't dwell much on Labrador. He calls Minnick "my opponent," and charged that the freshman congressman has been hard to pin down on issues, including health care. Minnick, Ward complains, voted against the health care bill backed by the Democratic leadership in the House but also failed to support a Republican proposal.
"My opponent stands at the crossroads of doing nothing. He can't get anything done," Ward said. "He doesn't support his own party, yet he doesn't support the Republican alternative, which is market-driven. You can't have it both ways."
MORE FROM MCCLATCHY
Follow the latest politics news at McClatchy's Planet Washington